by Marion Nestle
Sep 12 2016

Sugar industry funding of research, 1967 style (with many lessons for today)

I wrote a commentary for a study published this morning in JAMA Internal Medicine: “Food industry funding of nutrition research: The relevance of history for current debates.”

The study, by UCSF investigators Cristin Kearns, Laura Schmidt and Stanton Glantz, is based on their archival research.  They found documentary evidence of shocking manipulation by the sugar industry of a Harvard review of studies on dietary factors and heart disease published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967.

Kearns et al. discovered that the sugar industry trade association paid investigators at Harvard an impressive amount of money ($48,000 in today’s dollars) to produce research demonstrating that saturated fat—not sugar—raises the risk of heart disease.

In my commentary, I reproduced a figure from the sugar-funded 1967 reviews.  This summarizes the epidemiology showing that both sugar and saturated fat intake were then indistinguishably associated with increased mortality in 14 countries.

Nevertheless, the reviews exonerated sugars and blamed saturated fat.

Yes, I know that association does not necessarily mean causation, but I’m guessing that the epidemiology still shows that both sugars and saturated fats are associated with increased heart disease risk.

My interpretation: We would all be healthier eating less of sugary foods and fatty meats.

Here are the relevant documents for your reading pleasure:

The Sugar Association issued a response to today’s article by Kearns et al.:

We acknowledge that the Sugar Research Foundation should have exercised greater transparency in all of its research activities…Generally speaking, it is not only unfortunate but a disservice that industry-funded research is branded as tainted…We question this author’s continued attempts to reframe historical occurrences to conveniently align with the currently trending anti-sugar narrative, particularly when the last several decades of research have concluded that sugar does not have a unique role in heart disease.  Most concerning is the growing use of headline-baiting articles to trump quality scientific research—we’re disappointed to see a journal of JAMA’s stature being drawn into this trend.

I will post press accounts as they appear (I’m quoted in most of these):

  • FromPA

    This is the kind of completely useless study that started us down the path to the low fat diet (itself unsupported by scientific evidence).

    If we’re using epidemiological (epi) evidence, why not this, which shows the MORE saturated fat is consumed by men within a country, the LESS heart disease there is:

    https://www.dietdoctor.com/stunning-saturated-fat-and-the-european-paradox

    So much for the “French paradox” — there are literally hundreds of such “paradoxes” for saturated fat and the low fat diet.

    Is my cited study true? It’s epi evidence, so it only proves correlation, not causation. But it’s as good as the garbage epi studies that “proved” we should be eating a low fat diet.

    The Government simply has to get out of telling us what to eat. No one knows what we should be eating, but whatever it is, it is not what the Gov’t is currently telling us to eat.

  • FromPA

    This is the kind of completely useless study that started us down the path to the low fat diet (itself unsupported by scientific evidence).

    If we’re using epidemiological (epi) evidence, why not this, which shows the MORE saturated fat is consumed by men within a country, the LESS heart disease there is:

    https://www.dietdoctor.com/stunning-saturated-fat-and-the-european-paradox

    So much for the “French paradox” — there are literally hundreds of such “paradoxes” for saturated fat and the low fat diet.

    Is my cited study true? It’s epi evidence, so it only proves correlation, not causation. But it’s as good as the garbage epi studies that “proved” we should be eating a low fat diet.

    The Government simply has to get out of telling us what to eat. No one knows what we should be eating, but whatever it is, it is not what the Gov’t is currently telling us to eat.

  • Yamanote

    I suppose if anything can be called a “smoking gun” this would be it.

  • Yamanote

    I suppose if anything can be called a “smoking gun” this would be it.

  • Cathy Richards

    “currently trending” anti-sugar stuff….oh sugar association, dig deep, really deep, to rationalize your existence. Just fess up and say “sugar’s main role in our food supply should be to subtly enhance the palatability and functionality of nourishing foods and beverage. As an association we will no longer defend the overuse of sugar, particularly with respect to ’empty calorie’ products.” Why the heck is it so tough for industry to define responsibility in any measure other than financial gain???????? Capitalism in its pure (and now proven ineffective) form was meant to better society, to protect us from unscrupulous businesses!!, not to feed the greed of a powerful few at the cost of the populace. Buyer beware is NOT a functional model for a civilization.

  • David

    From the paper: “There is no direct evidence that the sugar industry wrote or changed the NEJM review manuscript; the evidence that the industry shaped the review’s conclusions is circumstantial”. What seems to be a bigger influence of industry research funds is the particular research focus and beliefs/ideology of researchers…e.g. industry funds people who’s research they think may benefit them rather than funding people to influence their conclusions.

    For more on this topic, please read the thoughtful commentary by Kevin Klatt: JAMA Internal Medicine – Sugar Industry | Nutrevolve http://bit.ly/2cCCUOi

  • David

    From the paper: “There is no direct evidence that the sugar industry wrote or changed the NEJM review manuscript; the evidence that the industry shaped the review’s conclusions is circumstantial”. What seems to be a bigger influence of industry research funds is the particular research focus and beliefs/ideology of researchers…e.g. industry funds people who’s research they think may benefit them rather than funding people to influence their conclusions.

    For more on this topic, please read the thoughtful commentary by Kevin Klatt: JAMA Internal Medicine – Sugar Industry | Nutrevolve http://bit.ly/2cCCUOi

  • David

    Not even close to a smoking gun. From the paper: “There is no direct evidence that the sugar industry wrote or changed the NEJM review manuscript; the evidence that the industry shaped the review’s conclusions is circumstantial”.

  • David

    Not even close to a smoking gun. From the paper: “There is no direct evidence that the sugar industry wrote or changed the NEJM review manuscript; the evidence that the industry shaped the review’s conclusions is circumstantial”.

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  • TR

    Don’t you tell me what I should or should not believe. I’d far rather listen to gov’t health recommendations based on sound science than you.

  • TR

    Indeed, buyer beware cannot ever work because buyers cannot be aware enough to make informed decisions in the marketplace. Who has the time, skill, and materials to test meat for microbial contamination when they are in the grocery store shopping for their family after working a full day on the job?

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